A Pair of Cyber Artists Develop a Fledgling Form

Village Voice June 24, 1997

The Heart of the Web

by C. Carr

Nina Sobell and Emily Hartzell did the first live performance in the history of the World Wide Web in the winter of 1994. No doubt you're hearing it here first. Art history's cyberspace chapter unfolds in quiet obscurity, though the new genre's low profile can't last forever. Last month, in what they estimate was their 80th performance, Sobell and Hartzell placed a live video feed at the center of the website's opening page, surrounding it with seven smaller images: hypervisual links to related performances in their archive. No one had done that before either. The artists feel they are still experimenting with what it even means to perform in cyberspace. But with this last piece, An Other Mother, they really used the webness of the Web.

Right from their first online performance in '94, these artists in residence at NYU's Center for Advanced Technology (CAT) insisted on interactivity-insisted on using the fact that they had an invisible audience watching on computers from God knows where. The first piece was simple. Sobell sculpted a porcelain figure onto an armature, then tore it off. The images that went out over the Web were silent, black and white, running in a stop action rhythm like a scene lit by a strobe. And those phantom spectators out there were creating the whole look of the piece-controlling the camera direction with mouse clicks, requesting the next image by clicking on the current image. "A free-for-all," Sobell remembers fondly. Live shows are still anomalies in cyberspace. But when they began in 1994, Hartzell and Sobell made a survey of all the live video feeds to the Web and found just three or four in the world. Only theirs had anything to do with art (The camera at MIT, for example, was focused on a coffee pot.) Also, NYU had set up the Web's only pointable camera. It was just an inch square, and the artists mounted it on sort of a robotic eye socket invented by CAT colleague Richard Wallace. It could just about do a 180.

To some degree, this is the art of the future, and there's all that new language to learn, all that high tech to bring low. But what about content? Clicking on that grid of 76 images in Hartzell and Sobell's Performance Archive, I found mostly playful shows-quasi animations with little toys, a card game recorded through a pinhole camera stuck to a card. Some viewers might see a drawback in the herky-jerky look of the performances-about 15 frames per minute with a 28.8 modem. (Early Chaplin ran at 30 frames per second.) It's a look to get used to. Sobell says she and Hartzell "like the idea of moving stills, because each frame is considered."

On Mother's Day at their NYU studio-a corner of the old robotics lab, walled of with boxes, filing cabinets and curtains-they began the newest performance, An Other Mother. The server was down, but Sobell didn't want to miss addressing what for her is the most dreaded of holidays. She still cherishes her four-year- old daughter, lost to AIDS after a transfusion of HIV-infected blood, still remembers being so uncherished by her own mother. Sobell has dealt with mother-daughter issues in other pieces over the years, but those performances were indirect enough to keep the most painful material under wraps. Now suddenly it was all spilling out. Somehow candor had become possible in cyberspace.

Artists have been dabbling in science since, at least, Da Vinci. But it was during the 60's-age of cybernetics, the first holograms, McLuhan's "global village"-that an art technology marriage seemed inevitiable, its possibilites downright cosmic. Then, somehow, little came of it. Computers were the size of Coke machines back then, and artists usually had to work on technology's turf-or have no access at all.

Even in today's culture of proliferating home pages, access is an issue. For Hartzell and Sobell, it's the issue.

They came to NYU in 1994 with a project called ParkBench, a plan to furnish the city with kiosks where people without home computers could browse the Web, get email, or engage in vidoconferencing. For free. The artists designed an interface keyed to each kiosk's neighborhood, with map, movie times, and restaurant listings. But they've never seen ParkBench as tourist central. This would be the entrance to the borderless world. And the attendants would come from the alternative high school program where both artists work (Sobell as computer coordinator and Hartzell as a computer consultant working with teachers). Sobell and Hartzell almost got one site open in a Harlem storefront, but that's on hold for the moment.

Another project of theirs is Alice, a souped-up motorized wheelchair with a telerobotic camera and a tiny video monitor attached to the handlebars. Alice's camera sends images to a Web site, and visitors can take turns controlling the camera's movement. Anyone with internet access can see what Alice sees, joining her on trips down the Guggenheim ramp, the Amazon, or the proverbial rabbit hole.

In 1973, Sobell began a pioneering project called "Interactive Electroencephalographic Brainwave Drawings." Using space and equipment loaned by a research scientist, Sobell had volunteers sit down in pairs, with electrodes measuring and charting their brainwaves through an EEG. If both people were on the same wavelength-literally-an oscilloscope merged the two people's brainwaves into a singular irregular circle, layered over a video image of the faces. During a 1992 installation, Sobell was able to demonstrate that people influenced each other's brain waves. That time she "wangled an EEG from New Jersey."

Sobell, 50, began her career as a sculptor, but she's always been interested in science. She got started with computers during the brain-wave drawings, went on to work at America's first personal-computer store (in Santa Monica), and taught one of UCLA's first computer-graphics classes. Hartzell, 30, began as a photographer who took a conceptual approach to the form and then got a master's in computer art They developed a personal and professional relationship after meeting in 1992. Ironically, they can't even get to the Web from their home computer, an outdated secondhand Mac.

"This calls for a hypertext experience," Hartzell thought after looking at An Other Mother on tape.

Sobell's improvised monologue about the most painful experiences in her life-with her daughter, and with her mother- had been layered over the videotapes of early "coded" performances on the same subjects. It was too much to take in all at once.

A week after Mother's Day, Sobell had planned a new approach. No talking. Just ritual. Wearing her black "mother's muumuu" and fingerless lace gloves, she began to cut strips of silk, then rewrap her daughter Cori's effigy, Buddha. Then she sketched Buddha, who was sittting atop Alice. Meanwhile, Hartzell had spent all week at the lab creating the hypervisual links to the old performances, each now accessible with the click of a mouse. Now anyone on the Web could get Cori's story and see what Buddha symbolized and come to understand that you can use the highest high tech to address the most human of needs.

For An Other Mother: http://www.cat.nyu.edu/parkbench/mother/